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FIRING RUFF WOULD YIELD LESS THAN ZERO

Go ahead. Fire Lindy Ruff. You might be doing him the biggest favor of his life. Because Ruff doesn't need this town. He doesn't need it one bit.

Ruff would be working a bench again by the end of the year, in another National Hockey League city, somewhere where fans would assess his track record and draw the logical conclusion: Hey, this guy can coach.

Why should he content himself with being in Buffalo, a place in which he's no longer wanted, or so public sentiment would suggest? He's won more regular-season games than any Sabres coach save Scotty Bowman. His playoff winning percentage and victory total are unmatched in franchise annals. He was the quintessential Buffalonian in the aftermath of No Goal: indignant, irate and inconsolable. And you loved him for it. Back then.

But it's different now, isn't it? Now he can't strategize, he can't motivate, he's lost the locker room and his neckties are ugly. Choose your poison of the day, load the dart, shoot. There are no easier pickings than a wounded animal, no target more appealing than convenience. Team's awful? Fire the coach.

Explanations abound in Ruff's defense but you'll never hear him spill them. He dwells in the present, which is why he analyzes mounds of game tapes - his, theirs and everyone else's - in search of an edge or an insight. He can't remember the last time he's slept more than two hours straight. His alarm clock has yet to break its maiden. Is it any wonder his players believe he's the NHL coach most thoroughly prepared?

Four seasons ago Ruff took the Sabres to the finals, which must have branded him a miracle worker. Because since then he was stripped of his incomparable goaltender, his premier two-way center and one of his top-four defensemen (Richard Smehlik, not Jason Woolley). He's toiling for a franchise that's bereft of farm talent. He lacks his most explosive offensive threat with Max Afinogenov on the shelf. And lately he can't find a goaltender to make a clutch save down the stretch. Yet what people are saying is, 3-11-3? Must be the coach.

The theory that Ruff has somehow "lost" his team, been tuned out by his players, is riddled with holes. Players have it in their power to undermine a coach at their whim. All it takes is a few comments that insinuate a mutiny is at hand. It's lesson one in the book on how to kill a bench boss, the plan the Stars employed to rid themselves of Ken Hitchcock, the Flyers of Bill Barber.

There are no signs of insurrection within the Sabres. Players are praising Ruff for backing off the heavy-handedness that started to turn them off last season. They've played their best hockey of the season in two of the last three games. If they relish the thought of him leaving, they're adept to a fault at covering their tracks.

Changing coaches is a tactic typical of owners and general managers who are either easily swayed by public opinion or eager to divert the blame. Because once a team has a competent coach, what's the sense in replacing him? To freshen the air? Break up the monotony? It's all an illusion.

Twenty percent of NHL teams will succeed based on their abundance of talent and 10 percent will fail for lack of talent. The remaining 70 percent will take turns making a run so long as they're well-coached. Paul Maurice was on the verge of being fired what, 10-15 times, before leading Carolina to the finals last year? Now he's regarded as one of the bright young minds in the game. But really it's just the luck of the draw.

The last thing the Sabres need is to start exhuming the Ron Wilsons of the coaching world. Scratch that. The last thing they need is to feed the public's undying fascination with Ted Nolan. The guy hasn't coached since May of '97. He alienated his star player. He alienated his general manager. Don't insult Ruff by suggesting Nolan would be a worthy replacement, a step up in class. If hockey were chess, Ruff beats Nolan in 15 moves.

But, go ahead. Fire him if you must. And then try to find another coach who'll put as much into it as he does, who'll live and die with it as he does.

Fire Ruff and he gets the last laugh. Guaranteed.

e-mail: rdicesare@buffnews.com

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